مشاهدة جميع الاصدارات : operatic adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar

16-12-2005, 16:28
his "Nobel Lecture: Art, Truth and Politics", delivered by video on doctors' orders and published in The Guardian on Wednesday, 7 December 2005, Harold Pinter reaffirms his belief in the ambiguity, multiplicity and relativity of truth as conceived by the artist. In the exploration of reality through art, he declares, "truth... is forever elusive", and the "search is clearly what drives the endeavour." "The real truth," he adds, "is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other." However, "the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed." Even in political theatre, he asserts, the "characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author... must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives."

Pinter could very well have been describing the artistic strategy adopted by Naguib Mahfouz in his Miramar. I had been rereading it in preparation for watching its operatic adaptation in a joint production by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Cairo Opera House last Thursday and was freshly struck by the awesomeness of the task the adventurous creators of this new opera -- librettist/poet Sayed Hegab, composer/conductor Sherif Mohieddin, and tenor/director Mohamed Abul-Kheir -- had set themselves. Adapting novels for the stage, even traditional, straightforward ones, involves a change of medium which, in turn, imposes its own aesthetics and exigencies on the new product. It entails careful selection, extensive omission, a compression of the spatio-temporal scope and, sometimes, a certain rearrangement of events. If the novel happens to be experimental or so complex as to suggest several different readings, the adaptor would face the challenge of matching its technical innovations and evocative power by finding alternative equivalents in the new medium.

Mahfouz's Miramar (published in 1967) is one such novel. Here, the untraditional form is crucial to the meaning. Despite the realistic, contemporary setting (Alexandria in the 1960s, before the 1967 defeat) and realistic characters (an odd assortment representing different generations, social classes, ambitions and ideological biases who singly drift one autumn to Miramar, a shabby-genteel pension run by an elderly Greek woman who has seen better days), the narrative is refracted through four different characters, each giving his own perspective on reality in an intimate monologue which constantly moves between past and present. Together, the monologues build a depressing picture of an ailing, painfully fractured society, in the throes of political, economic and social upheavals, riddled with fear, ideological contradictions, moral corruption and ruthless opportunism. The bleakness of this vision has led many to describe the novel as a prophecy of the miserable defeat suffered by Nasser's repressive, military regime in 1967 and an insightful reflection on the conditions which led to it.

In the absence of a traditional plot, the eponymous boarding house acts as a major unifying element, while its status as "temporary abode" gains in symbolic significance, at once identifying the temporal context of the novel as a transitional historical period and laying bare the feelings of loneliness, loss and alienation which underlie it. Another important link between the monologues is the idea of freedom which runs through the novel as a dominant theme played in different variations. As the few events which make up the basic story line, and mainly revolve round sex, money, marriage and betrayal, migrate from one monologue to another, appearing in a different light each time, the idea of freedom keeps cropping up, directly or obliquely, in relation to love, morality, economic deprivation, political repression, religious dogmatism, and even death and aging.

With calculated irony, Mahfouz embodies the ideal of freedom in Zohra, the one character in the novel who never even mentions the word and would be quite at a loss to define it. The irony is multiplied by the absence of Zohra's voice from the narrative. Functioning as a point of intersection between the lives of the characters and a catalyst in their conflicts, she only reaches us through the eyes of the four narrators or what they report the other characters to have said about her, the information invariably coloured by the speakers' prejudices. Nevertheless, and quite amazingly, this voiceless character -- an illiterate, young peasant woman who defies patriarchal authority, flees her village to escape a forced marriage, sacrificing a small plot of land she used to farm herself, joins the pension as a servant to earn her living, and sets about educating herself to improve her lot in life -- emerges as the only truly free spirit and the real protagonist who morally defines the other characters by their attitudes to her and orchestrates our sympathies accordingly. While the other characters are either chained to the past (like the octogenarian retired journalist, 'Amer Wagdi, the landlady, Mariana, and the ex-feudal lord, Tolba Bek), crippled by guilt and remorse (like Mansour Bahi who deserts his comrades under pressure then seduces his mentor's wife out of weakness), enslaved by greed and lust (like the sham, self-seeking revolutionary Sarhan El-Beheiri and his mistress, Safeya), or dogged by an excruciating sense of inferiority and futility (like the rich, dissolute Husni 'Allam), Zohra instinctively understands freedom as moral integrity and human dignity, regardless of wealth or class, and practices this creed in everything she does. Subtly, without shattering the realistic credibility of the character, Mahfouz builds Zohra into a glorified, idealised symbol of Egypt as he would like it to be, and he could not have achieved this had he made her one of the narrators. Her silence was useful in another direction too: as it identifies her with the silent majority of Egyptians who are denied freedom of speech, it acts as a satirical comment on Nasser's politics and his rhetoric of freedom.

Attempting to reproduce such a structure on the stage or screen would be foolhardy; short of placing four actors on the stage in succession and letting them do all the talking while the scenes and characters they speak about flit silently on a screen behind, it is virtually impossible. And no audience would stand for it either. In an earlier, extended article entitled "Fiction in action" (published on this page on 11 March, 1999), I listed and discussed all the known adaptations of novels into plays since the late Amina El-Sawi started this trend in 1958 with a dramatisation of Mahfouz's Midaq Alley. Mahfouz's literary stature and the enthusiastic critical reception of the novel, led by Taha Hussein no less, guaranteed popular success. This encouraged others to follow suit, causing a spate of adaptations which covered many of the best or most popular novels written in the 1960s or earlier. The standard practice then was to dismantle the form, fish out the story, arrange its events neatly in chronological order, then dramatise as much of it as possible within the conventional time limits of a full-length play in the name of truth to the text. This predictably resulted in various degrees of rambling, and lack of dramatic focus and formal coherence. But the adaptors didn't care; they knew that comparisons would inevitably be made and that their failure or success with the public and critics would ultimately rest on their faithfulness to the source text rather than the artistic merit of the stage-version.

Adapting Miramar as a libretto in colloquial Egyptian Arabic for a Western-style grand opera, however, belongs to a different tradition. Sayed Hegab's contribution in this highly important experiment should be judged not in relation to earlier stage-adaptations of Mahfouz, such as El-Sawi's, but in the context of earlier attempts in this direction. Compared to the librettos of operas such as Kamel El-Remali's Hassan El-Basri, Sayed Awad's Cleopatra, or Aziz El-Shawwan's Anas El-Wugoud, Sayed Hegab's in Miramar stands out not only because it replaces the traditional classical Arabic with the Egyptian dialect to suit the contemporary theme and setting of the drama, but also because its linguistic medium is set to Sherif Mohieddin's demanding, original score which draws on different Western and Arabic musical modes, instruments and styles of singing. In its richness and variety, vividness and vitality, lyrical flights and vulgar patches, it seems to hark back to Sayed Darwish's operettas in the early 20th century and has all the power which characterised his librettos in Mohieddin's earlier Three Operas in an Hour, based on three short stories by Yusef Idris on contemporary themes.

Having an imaginative, professionally trained opera director like Mohamed Abul-Kheir, who also has a thorough knowledge of Western and Arabic music and sings beautifully in both, was a definite asset in this kind of venture. One of his major virtues is his belief that opera should be made exciting and provide a lively, total theatrical experience which engages all the senses and not just the ears. To achieve this, the singers must be trained in acting as thoroughly as professional actors, the sets should be made to speak to the audience rather than merely dazzle them. This is why every visual detail and aspect of this performance, the movement, gestures, gaits and postures, the lighting, costumes, set and props, became eloquent signs complementing the words and music, and actively contributing to the total experience. His inspired stage-design featured the façade of an old two-storey building with long French windows at the bottom and ordinary ones on top; this front is detachable and could be lifted when the action took place inside and lowered when it moved to the street. The interior of this building showed the pension 's entrance hall in which burgundy was the dominant colour to express Mariana's passionate clinging to the illusion of youth and beauty. Decorative sets of bars mark the lounge area from the entrance and the reception counter and two rooms flank it on either side. The top floor is simpler, colder and less realistic; it is rigidly divided into a row of small, cell-like rooms with no back or front walls. It was reminiscent of a prison ward, but flimsier and pathetically exposed, and somehow it seemed to visually echo the decorative bars downstairs, suggesting the whole place, and symbolically the whole structure of society in the 1960s, was a prison.

In its design and details, this structure visually approximated the monologic form of Mahfouz's novel and seemed to echo its characters' feelings of helpless entrapment. Aesthetically, by spreading the action both vertically and horizontally over every visible inch of the stage space, this design allowed the rhythm of the action to flow unhindered, following its own internal modulations, and invested the show with a quality of dynamic variety which totally engrossed the audience in the world of the play. On the practical side too, Abul- Kheir's scenography was extremely efficient, doing away with the need for set changes and allowing the action to move from one scene to the other with film-like fluidity. In the interest of fluidity too, and to cope with the novel's quick shifts of location, Abul-Kheir expropriated the area round the orchestra pit, building a catwalk for external scenes distant from the pension and used the two boxes on either side of the stage to represent the cabaret where Safiya works and the deserted spot where Mansour Bahi kicks the already dead Sarhan.

But an opera after all stands or falls by its music and no amount of directorial ingenuity would have made this modern Egyptian opera work if it weren't for the rich musical talent and experimental prowess of Sherif Mohieddin. For Miramar, as if by way of a gift to Mahfouz on his 94th birthday, he wrote a thrilling score of breath- taking freshness. Bestriding two worlds, the music moves easily between two cultures, creating a delightful musical dialogue which combines twelve-tone music and layered contrapuntal Western writing with Arabic maqamat, instruments and melodies, including quarter-tones. Equally exciting is the intricate combination of Western and Egyptian styles of singing with "an expressionistic modern style of Sprechstimme (Sound- speech)", as distinguished musicologist Azza Madian describes it. This style of "expressive singing", which is close to expressive musical speech and is performed with a continuous harpsichord accompaniment, she notes, is "far from the simplicity of pop singing, yet also avoids the remoteness of Western operatic singing", and is, therefore, more appealing to the Egyptian ear. In this stunning Arab-Western musical dialogue, the style of which Madian defines as "neo-baroque", excerpts from the works of Johann Sebastian Bach give way to vivid echoes of Mozart, and sweet oriental melodies, redolent of the spirit of Sayed Darwish, waft you to Umm Kulthum for a brief taste of her celestial voice and Baligh Hamdi's sweet melodies, then, suddenly, you catch your breath in wonder as you listen to deeply moving verses from the Quran, the same verses which close Mahfouz's novel, chanted by the magnificent Quran reciter Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat.

Of the arias I loved were Tahia Shamseddin's and Hisham El-Guindi's, and I found the a capella quartet sung by Shamseddin, Aya Shalabi, Elhamy Amin and Mustafa Mohamed quite delightful. Ingy Mohsen's and El-Guindi's duets, though their voices blended well, did not quite do justice to the dramatic situations they expressed. Another lapse on the part of the librettist and composer, both dramatically and musically, was omitting to give at least one aria to both Mariana (Neveen Allouba) and Sarhan (Mustafa Mohamed). It is not only that one cannot have enough of Allouba's voice; the character of Mariana in the novel is much richer than appeared here and the stories and memories she relates in the novel provide exquisite material which cries to be woven into song. There was a golden opportunity to evoke her colourful past and give her human depth through a nostalgic aria which interwove some period Greek music and song. Indeed, Naguib Mahfouz repeatedly describes her in the novel sitting next to the radio, listening to one specific favourite song about a girl listing the qualities of her ideal future husband; he also tells us that she constantly writes to the radio station to request this particular song. Mohamed, as Sarhan, also badly needed an aria before his suicide to smooth the transition from his consistently ebullient state to a more sombre one. As it is, his suicide seems abrupt and rings false. Equally, the transition of Mansour Bahi from a young intellectual paralysed by fear into a would-be killer requires some dramatic justification for his neurosis: perhaps we could catch a glimpse of his brother, the overbearing police officer, who effectively emasculates him? Even one duet would have helped.

To stage an opera based on Miramar -- a novel which has a galaxy of characters, all complex and all equally important, you need a large, strong cast and good ensemble-acting. With a main cast numbering 13 and a 17-strong chorus Abul-Kheir faced a daunting task and was extremely lucky to get some of the best and most proficient stars of the Opera company. Each of them gave the best of their acting and singing talents to their parts and were careful not to foreground one at the expense of the other and, more importantly, not to upstage fellow singers. A spirit of camaraderie, of cordial mutual support seemed to enfold the stage and spread through the orchestra pit into the auditorium. Rarely in an opera does one get such an exquisite, finely-tuned, and meticulously choreographed ensemble-performance.